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SEVENTY YEARS ago, a general strike movement led by a small Trotskyist group in the US city of Minneapolis resulted in a victory for the Teamsters general union and marked a decisive phase in the struggle of US labour.
CHRISTIAN BUNKE explains the importance of this chapter of workers' history and the lessons for today's generation of socialist activists in the unions.
IN 1933, Farrell Dobbs and Marvell Scholl, a young working class couple, arrived in Minneapolis full of optimism and plans for their future. But after joining the "great army of the unemployed", they would all too soon find out about the casualised nature of the labour market in Minneapolis.
Farrell Dobbs entered casual employment as a truck driver for coal companies and experienced poverty wages, long working hours as well as unsafe working conditions. Because of the economic crisis at the time, workers' living conditions were getting worse, rather then better.
As he would describe later in his acclaimed book, Teamster Rebellion, he found the local labour movement in a bad state. There was no union that would take in the casual drivers who were driving for coal depots, groceries, butchers and other local businesses. There existed a nominal local (branch) of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), the union responsible for drivers.
This was organised along very narrow and elitist craft lines. Daniel J. Tobin, then president of the union, wrote in the union newspaper that IBT members were: "not the rubbish that have come into other organisations." He also said he did not want people to join if "they are going on strike tomorrow." Tobin and his fellow union officials enjoyed a lavish lifestyle and extremely high wages. No wonder then, that under such a leadership the IBT never won any disputes.
However, Farrell got in contact with members of the Trotskyist organisation at the time, the Communist League. These were also casualised workers, who were in the process of transforming the local Teamster branch into a genuine and fighting workers' organisation.
By forming a voluntary organising committee, the Trotskyists started recruiting workers from the coalfields into the union. By involving the best rank-and-file fighters and recruiting successfully to the union, the committee was soon seen as the real leadership of the local union. The officialdom was completely outmanoeuvred.
When a mass meeting of drivers in the coal sector, called by the committee, decided to take strike action for more pay and shorter working hours, the officials had no choice but to submit. Tobin tried to enforce the official and very bureaucratic union rules, but he was powerless as the workers took action.
The strike was carried out swiftly and in a militant manner with a democratically elected leadership that really represented the will of the workers. Rank-and-file militants developed new methods of picketing, like cruising pickets with carloads of picketers ready to intervene wherever necessary. Although the police tried to break the strike with truncheons and arrests, the strikers achieved a quick victory.
The employers were completely taken by surprise. IBT local 574 won the strike, thus electrifying the workers in Minneapolis. It was the first ever successful strike in this city, thousands of workers were now joining the union.
However, this was only the beginning. Local 574 now launched a massive campaign culminating in a city-wide strike involving truck drivers and hitting pretty much every business. The employers, organised in a body called "citizens alliance," were fuming.
Unemployed and women's organisations associated to the union were founded in order to support the strike. Many unemployed were also casualised workers and it was important to involve them in the struggle, firstly in order to prevent them from being used as strike breakers, but also to involve them in the battle that was fought in their interest as well.
The women's organisation predominantly organised the strikers' wives. Thousands of women were politicised and got active because of the dispute.
As before, the strike leadership was democratically elected and accountable to the strikers at all times. Regular mass meetings and rallies were held not only to keep up morale but also to involve members in the decision-making process.
A newspaper called The Organizer was published on a daily basis to provide strikers and the local working class with information about the strike. It played a vital role to counter the misinformation and propaganda the bosses put out through the various capitalist media. The citizens alliance repeatedly tried to stop the paper from appearing and even used methods of intimidation and terrorism in order to achieve this goal, but to no avail.
A massive strike headquarters was built, complete with a hospital and a kitchen serving hundreds of meals per day. This was possible because of the support from other trade unions, for example the trade union of kitchen workers whose members volunteered to run the HQ's kitchen. This gave a true glimpse of what would be possible under socialism, when ordinary people are in charge of running society.
The police immediately attacked the strikers. There were running battles between armed picketers and the police. At one stage, the military was used against the strikers and the HQ got raided. On Friday 20 July, one worker was deliberately shot dead by the police.
Despite all these provocations, the strikers and the picketers remained a disciplined force at all times. Picketers were only armed after the first police atrocities and only the most disciplined activists were given arms.
Although the strikers received massive support from other workers and other trade union branches, the national IBT leadership always tried to sabotage the struggle. Tobin declared the strike illegal and wrote polemics against the strike leaders in the national union newspaper.
The Communist Party was also not helpful. It was, by then, a completely Stalinised organisation with no roots within the working class. Once the strike took off, its members tried to muscle themselves in by demanding leadership positions and calling those Trotskyists without whom this strike would never have happened, "sell outs".
CP members, in contrast, where never involved in actively building the union. The workers, however, saw through such bullyboy tactics and the CP never got anywhere.
After a long war of attrition, during which the employers tried everything in their power to break the union, they finally agreed to compromise in August 1934. Minimum wage rates for drivers and other casual workers were agreed, a board of arbitration with union representation was set up.
As with most strikes, the end result was a compromise. The minimum wage was lower then the original union demand. However, it was still a resounding victory for the working class. Local 574 gained the right to represent casual workers in all major workplaces in Minneapolis. The union had gained an unprecedented level of strength.
However, as the The Organizer warned, "the strike ends but the struggle does not end". Every victory for the working class will only be temporary, as long as capitalism exists. Every compromise only sets the stage for future conflict. In Minneapolis, there would be a number of skirmishes between the union and the employers after the strike.
The Communist League gained hundreds of new members and developed a powerful base in Minneapolis as a result of the strike. Its members had been the effective leaders of the union at all stages.
During the strike, workers had been politicised and learned first hand about the true role of the police and the nature of class society. The most political workers drew Marxist conclusions and joined what they saw as being the genuine Marxist organisation.
Local 574 showed in practice that it is possible to organise casualised workers, to fight and to win better working conditions and higher wages. This alone makes it worth commemorating this historic battle 70 years ago.
Today, when most trade union officials sit on their hands and enjoy high wages - while doing little to unionise young workers or to organise struggles against low pay, long hours and dangerous working conditions - it is more important then ever to look back at this successful struggle, a powerful proof that fighting trade unions can win.
In The Socialist 7 August 2004:
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